The two works seen were chosen almost by random, or by an immediate attraction to the qualities and intensity of each. The first painting is Vermeer’s Study of a Young Woman, and
Vermeer is certainly representative of personal style, or the artist’s unique and consistent expression of an individual viewpoint (Kleiner 4). Even without knowledge of his other work, it is clear that he is a master at presenting warm, human realities.
Perhaps the most attractive aspect of the painting is its classic simplicity that is not classic in any grandiose way. Perspective is an important resource for a painter, allowing a virtually unlimited range of visual approaches and adding shades of meaning apart from the content itself (Kleiner 8). With Vermeer’s work here, however, there is almost a defiant disregard of any such approach. The viewer senses that Vermeer is insistent on presenting his girl exactly as she would appear in life, turning her head to face the view within a close space.
Then, Vermeer is famous for an unparalleled skill in recreating natural light. No matter the setting, his light is never artificial (Schneider 87). It is both white and infused with tints of gold, perfectly representing diffused sunlight and how such light shifts when it enters a closed space. This has the effect of actually creating his colors; the skin on the girl’s face is almost translucent, even as it is fully human and natural in its tones. This is all the more emphasized by the darkness surrounding the girl. Because the light itself is so natural, there is then a spiritual quality to the painting because it seems to come from nowhere and exists only to illuminate the girl. Adding to this is the expression so perfectly captured on the face. It is both serene and knowing, and there is a suggestion of mystery in the minimal smile. The elements of color, light, and perspective then combine to create a painting that is almost hypnotic, drawing the viewer into the face turned to them. There is no escaping the impression that the girl has something to impart, just as the viewer understands she will be forever silent.
Cezanne’s Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses achieves something of the same, hypnotic effect, an achievement all the more remarkable given the plain subject matter. There are no eyes here to arrest the viewer, or a strange and mysterious face to indicate mystery. At the same time, the stark simplicity of the painting, with a perspective as basic as that of Vermeer, commands interest. There is something non-dimensional about the scene, even as it is realistic; there is a feeling that the table exists in a different kind of space, and this is an effect likely produced by Cezanne’s legendary use of color. Cezanne was a master at manipulating color through a style all his own. Everything is muted and his colors are never vibrant or striking, but the restraint then works to present a kind of softened version of reality itself. The muted colors, in other words, transform the hard reality of the scene and give it an other-worldly quality. It is possible that, if Cezanne’s darker wall to the right were as pale as the one behind the table, the entire scene would appear almost as a dream.
This goes to Cezanne’s textures, which in any painting are of the represented type (Kleiner 8). The dreamy quality of the painting is actually enhanced by the realism of the surfaces, just as the soft colors of the fruit allow Cezanne to more clearly reveal the skins, Some of the apples have a gloss on them, but the dominant impression is of “real” fruit with blemishes and bruises. Even the pale reds and greens reinforce the sense that the apples are smooth, but not completely smooth, and this quality is emphasized by the texture of the cloth beneath them. The bluish white folds of the cloth reveal thickness, just as the wooden table adds another layer of strong texture. These three elements, then, of the fruit, cloth, and table, all share a quality of rawness; this is very much a country table in a casual, rustic setting. It is then all the more striking how the work seems to be a fragment of a dream or a memory. It has no meaning beyond what it is, but this lack of theme enables to viewer to create the meaning, and attach feelings to it based on personal experience. Ultimately, however., and just as with the Vermeer, the work literally arrests the viewer, because the skill of the painting creates a small reality too compelling to pass by.